The Tama River Foxes

Main Reference: Tama River Folktales by Sakuhira Ishii, Arimine Shoten Publishing, 1976

Yoshitoshi 1891In this story the author/compiler of the book gets “invited” to a fox story-telling competition. In Japanese folktales, foxes (kitsune) and raccoon dogs (tanuki) are often portrayed as able to change shape and cause hallucinations. Foxes are also associated with being able to possess people (kitsune tsuki — this is Wikipedia’s link, but the information about only possessing women is incorrect).  This probably comes from the association of foxes with the kami Inari who could possess his followers to give them visions or prophecies. The “competition” in this story appears to be a compilation of fox folktales from Tama River.

(a) A fox from Tachikawa tells a story about a joke he played on a human. He made the man believe that he had to cross a river, but it was just a plain field. The man removed his clothes and swam around and around the field for hours.

(b) The Tachikawa fox also tells a story about trying to trick an old woman into believing she’s on fire. But she notices there’s something strange about the flames. First she says they are not strong enough, so the fox makes them stronger. Then she says they should be red not yellow. So the fox makes them red. Then she says it is the first fire she has encountered that responds to her comments. So the fox gives up on the fire and tries to trick her by turning into her dead husband. He motions at her to come with him to the mountains saying, “Come with me. Come with me.” But she only glares at him and says she knows he is a fox.

(c) A fox from Hachioji tells a story about changing into a young woman to attract and eat cranes. When he changed into a woman, he always put a Japanese Camilla in his hair. Many other foxes copied his technique, always with the Camilla. God became angry because the foxes were eating all the cranes, so God flooded the Camilla tree grove and killed the trees.

(d) A fox from Hikawa tells a story about possessing two children to get fish. But the other humans figure out how to undo the fox possession. It’s a bit silly. They put a kind of cooking pan (焙烙) on the person’s head and the possessed person recovers.

(e) A fox from Ome tells a story about a clever blacksmith who placed gun powder bombs in squid. He left the squid around the forest to catch raccoon dogs and foxes. The animals would eat the squid which would explode in their mouths. Eventually, the animals were terrified and sent an old fox and his son to go speak to the blacksmith. The blacksmith promised to stop making the squid bombs if the foxes would help him when he needed help. The old fox promised and told him to come to their home at Mt. Nagaoka and say “I need help” three times in his hour of need.

Some time later, the blacksmith couldn’t help but feel he wanted to catch foxes again. He looked for a way to get around his promise. Eventually, he decided that instead of squid, he could make a bomb out of fried tofu, which the foxes especially love. He left one of his fried tofu bombs under a tray, but his wife found it and ate it. It blew off her jaw and the only sound she could make was “ka ka.” He ran to the foxes for help, but they said that what he had done was equivalent to breaking his promise and would not help him.

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